Carrie Gillon: Hi, and welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination.
Megan Figueroa: I’m Megan Figueroa.
Carrie Gillon: And I’m Carrie Gillon. “Ew, David.” [Laughter]
Megan Figueroa: I like your impression. Carrie is referencing my beanie – tuque, right? It’s called a tuque in Canada? It’s says, “Ew, David,” because I bought it from the Schitt’s Creek shop – the merchandise shop. I’m wearing it because – a lot of you will find it embarrassing, but the temperatures are now below 90 degrees, so I’m just like, “I’m cold.”
Carrie Gillon: Well, last night, we watched a movie outside, and it dipped below 70. So, yeah, I put on a sweatshirt.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah! The low is Tuscan tomorrow is gonna be 39. That’s real. I think a lot of people would find that cold.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Definitely 39 is cold, for sure.
Megan Figueroa: I will not be anywhere near the outdoors when it’s 39 degrees. That’s probably like, 4:00 A.M. or something when I will be tucked into my bed. But to be fair to me and us – well, not so much you because you can tolerate cold better probably – but I can tolerate 115 degrees. My body can.
Carrie Gillon: You’re much more prepared for heat than I am. I can handle cold a little bit better as long as I have proper clothing.
Megan Figueroa: That’s true. At least with cold there is clothing to help with that. There’s nothing you can really do about 115 degrees.
Carrie Gillon: Right. And taking off clothing can actually be counter productive, at least if you’re in the sun. You need the clothing to protect your skin and keep you a little bit cooler.
Megan Figueroa: That’s why people that work outside, you’ll see them in long-sleeve, like, white shirts and stuff. It might be counter intuitive, but that’s how it should be. Okay. So, the fact that it’s almost gonna be 39 degrees one night in Tuscan soon means that it’s winter! It’s almost November.
Carrie Gillon: Oh my god. How time has flown. We made it almost to November.
Megan Figueroa: Flown. Flown – and also it feels like quicksand, right? Eventually it takes you.
Carrie Gillon: Yes. It’s a slow-mo thing and, eventually, you’re gone.
Megan Figueroa: Yep. You’re there. You’re wherever.
Carrie Gillon: Wherever the quicksand takes you.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. I have no idea.
Carrie Gillon: Anyway, the whole point of this is that we’re like, just over a week away from the election.
Megan Figueroa: The US election if anyone happened to be under a rock. Which, let me join you, please, under that rock. I don’t wanna know anything that’s happening! But our episode today is –
Carrie Gillon: It’s kind of about the way that Trump uses language.
Megan Figueroa: Yes. And his rhetorical style, right?
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, his rhetorical style and choice of topic – just the way he manipulates language to manipulate us. It’s basically all about Trump. It’s all Trump all the time, so apologies.
Megan Figueroa: So, take care while listening. It’s just an amazing guest joins us to talk about that. Definitely recommend listening to it but also take care because fuck that guy. Speaking of, also, so someone Tweeted out during the last debate – this is probably about Trump we think since the timing. The Tweet by CJ Pascoe says, “I really appreciate complete sentences.”
Okay. But first, before we talk about that, Sylvia Sierra, a fellow linguist, retweeted this with the comment, “no one speaks in complete sentences, this is a language ideology that doesn’t reflect reality. people speak in utterances, sometimes these coincide with sentences. people write and read in sentences.”
Carrie Gillon: It’s easy to complain about the way Trump talks because he is very meandering. He’ll go from one thought to another thought and just expects you to follow along. Unless you’re deeply ensconced in his worldview, it’s not always that easy to follow his train of thought. But I you’re ensconced in it, if you’re fully in it, like Fox News-ed up, or OM-ed up, then it’s really easy because you know all the things he’s saying – all the things he’s alluding to.
Megan Figueroa: You know all the threads – right. I don’t even know. I’m not in it. I can’t even give an example.
Carrie Gillon: Well, so during the debate, a lot of what he was talking about were things like, you know, Hunter Biden’s emails. But he wasn’t really all that specific about what was in the emails, probably because there’s nothing really that bad in the emails. It’s really hard to be specific. He’s also not that great at being specific in the first place. He just likes to make these generalizations that you’re supposed to just be like, “Oh, yes. Corrupt – that person’s corrupt.” They don’t have to know why, just that they are. But he also couldn’t remember the name of the guy that he brought to the debate who was supposedly Hunter Biden’s partner – uh.
Megan Figueroa: In crime?
Carrie Gillon: I was gonna say “in crime,” but then I’m not sure they actually did anything. But you know what I mean.
Megan Figueroa: Right. No. That’s what he thinks is his “partner in crime,” quote-unquote, “crime.” Yeah.
Carrie Gillon: But he didn’t even remember the guy’s name, so he couldn’t even say it. It was interesting to watch just him try to throw shit at the wall but in a more ineffectual way than normal for him.
Megan Figueroa: Right. And so the idea behind the original tweet is that picking on that – he doesn’t speak in complete sentences – and this is a mess, and there’s some sort of disconnect between being capable or being intelligent or being good at X and speaking in complete sentences. Like, he’s not there, so he’s not capable. And there’re so many fucking reasons why Trump is not capable.
Carrie Gillon: Well, he actually is. Because did you listen to him talking to Woodward in the tapes about the Coronavirus?
Megan Figueroa: Oh, yes, yes. I guess he does seem a lot more with it in those.
Carrie Gillon: He spoke closer to what full sentences would be – what we would consider to be a full sentence. He spoke like a normal human being in those tapes. It’s kind of shocking to hear him talk like a normal human being because we’re so used to these meandering speeches that just go every which direction, and he doesn’t really ever say anything concrete because he doesn’t wanna be pinned down, but he can if he wants to.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. But, again, normal people don’t always speak in complete sentences. That’s not the point there.
Carrie Gillon: We very rarely do.
Megan Figueroa: Right. I just think so many people are picking up the fact that like, TV anchors and podcasts that are professionally produced by NPR or whatever, the hosts will talk in complete sentences. It’s because these things are scripted. They’re reading a script. If you notice, that’s not always true in the interviews.
Carrie Gillon: Right. The questions might be, but the answers aren’t. We’re capable of talking in sentences, but we generally don’t, and if we do, it’s usually because something has been pre-written, or we’re saying something really simple. “This is a sentence.” You know, something like that.
Megan Figueroa: I agree. See? Another sentence. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: We can, but we very rarely do – very rarely. But I think what people are picking up on is that most people who have speeches, their speeches are prepared. They’re pre-written. They’ve had speech writers pour over them to make sure every word is perfect. Trump doesn’t do any of that. He just violates all these norms. I think that’s what people are picking up on. We can talk about whether that’s a bad thing or not. I think it’s kind of both, depending. But it has nothing to do with anything else – with his character, or his intelligence, or anything.
Megan Figueroa: Again, we’ve talked about this before. So, people will say something like, “I can’t wait for a president who speaks English” or whatever. These types of comments are harmful because, ultimately, they’re not gonna affect people like Donald Trump. Other people are gonna get harmed by this because the ideology will be passed on that people who don’t speak in complete sentences – or who speak like him, whatever, in whatever way you think that is – are the problem when, in reality, that has nothing to do with if they’re capable at X or whatever.
Carrie Gillon: Also, he speaks English. It’s not the issue. I hate when people say that because it’s like, really? A.) Why does that matter so much to you? I mean, obviously we want a president who we can understand. I get that part. But like, he obviously speaks English.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Yes. So, I know. I mean, there’s so many things to rag on about him. Just pick them. Why does it always have to be able how he talks. He does it on purpose. He’s communicating to his base beautifully, isn’t he? They know.
Carrie Gillon: There are ways to critique the way that he talks. It’s just it should be more about how is he trying to manipulate us.
Megan Figueroa: Yes, like we talk about today.
Carrie Gillon: Like we talk about today. He doesn’t complete a thought. Why is that? Not that he doesn’t complete a thought, because that happens to all of us, but why does he do it all the time? It’s because it’s on purpose.
Megan Figueroa: Well, yeah, I’m thinking how many times did I not complete a thought in this intro. It happens all the time. We stop and we go on to another thing. Our brains are faster than us talking.
Carrie Gillon: Than our mouth?
Megan Figueroa: Than our mouth, yeah. Yeah, so, why did he trail off? Is it because he realized he was about to say something that, I dunno, would undermine – I dunno. Exactly.
Carrie Gillon: No, because he wants the hearer to fill in the gap so that he doesn’t have to say the thing. If you can’t fill in the gap, then you’re not part of his base, and he doesn’t care about you. But if you can, you’re probably part of his base, and it’s good. You’re on the same wavelength.
Megan Figueroa: People speak in incomplete sentences all the time. It has nothing to do with your intelligence, or ability to complete X, or your whatever – I mean, whatever we’ve tied onto this idea that people must speak in complete sentences. Because, again, I think a lot of people might believe that and not want to be actively harmful. It’s just –
Carrie Gillon: Right. No, of course.
Megan Figueroa: – something that, you know, we might pick up from, like I said, TV and podcasts and speeches.
Carrie Gillon: And I do wanna make this clear that I think the reason why people are upset comes from a place that makes some kind of sense. Like, Trump is being manipulative, right, when he does this trailing off thing where he switches from topic to topic without really saying anything concrete. He’s being slippery. So, people are upset about that. But they don’t understand that that’s what it really is. They just mis-ascribe it to, oh, he doesn’t speak in complete sentences, as if those were the same thing. They’re not the same thing.
Megan Figueroa: One hundred percent, yes.
Carrie Gillon: The reason that people are upset is totally understandable, but they’re just not getting the actual reason right.
Megan Figueroa: Yes, agreed.
Carrie Gillon: So, then it perpetuates these harmful things, and that’s the only reason why we care. We just don’t want people to be perpetuating harmful language ideologies.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Because it’s gonna live on past Trump and past – yeah, past Trump.
Carrie Gillon: Of course it will, yeah.
Megan Figueroa: That’s the problem. That’s when it becomes a true problem. Because I ultimately don’t care what people think about Trump, even if it is –
Carrie Gillon: No, yeah, it has nothing to do with what they think about him. It’s totally about what it means about what you think about language in general and what you think about people who speak language in general.
Megan Figueroa: Exactly. Let’s go on and talk about Trump a little bit more.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. [Laughter]
Megan Figueroa: All right. We’ve very excited today to have Dr. Norma Mendoza-Denton who is a Professor of Anthropology at University of California, Los Angeles. She is best known for her book Homegirls: Language and Cultural Practice Among Latina Youth Gangs. She publishes on language and politics, youth, migration, and visual cultures. She’s also co-editor with Janet McIntosh of the new book Language in the Trump Era. Thank you so much for being here with us today.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, thank you.
Megan Figueroa: Why did you wanna edit this book? Why is language so important in the Trump era?
Norma M-D: Trump was elected. And when that happened, after watching the run up to the election and the kinds of discourse that were being used there, a group of scholars – basically me and Janet McIntosh – decided to put together a panel at the American Anthropological Association meetings. That resulted in this volume. We had the people who were originally on the panel plus some people that we felt would be really great to have tell their side of what they think is happening.
Carrie Gillon: Is there anything unique about this era? Is Trump unique in his use of language? If so, how? And if not, what other people are using the same kind of rhetoric or language?
Norma M-D: Okay. Well, let me just start within the US. Trump is not unique in his use of language. He’s just, in a sense, the crystallization of a lot of different trends that we’ve been having. You might recall Sarah Palin was running in the Vice-Presidential ticket. Before her election, she had put up a map of the US with crosshairs onto the map of where different opponents were. Soon after that, a gunman shot Gabby Giffords in Tuscan. I think that this incitement to violence actually wound up galvanizing a lot of people. At the University of Arizona, there’s a national institute for civil discourse where we were trying to talk about this whole phenomenon.
It was sort of a scary time because, as you know, I mean, Tuscan is not exactly a sleepy town, but definitely it’s a place where people were not imagining that such a thing could be happening. Fast forward six years later – or even now, eight, ten years later – you have people yelling, “Get them out! Send them back!” So, this is all a kind of evolution of the civility and discourse going way downhill over the last, what, 15 years. I also remember when President Obama was heckled from within the floor that one of the congresspeople yelled, “You lie!” I can see that in the House of Lords, but we don’t really have that behavior in congress. That was a bit of a shock.
Megan Figueroa: Also, when Governor Jan Brewer – when he got the plane, and she was wagging her finger at him.
Norma M-D: That’s right. And at that time, that made headlines.
Megan Figueroa: I mean, the picture was the front page.
Norma M-D: I’m telling you, what goes in Arizona comes up later.
Megan Figueroa: And you were at the University of Arizona – just so listeners –
Norma M-D: Yeah, I worked there for a long time. So, we have a special Arizona sisterhood.
Megan Figueroa: Yes, exactly. Absolutely. So, you say he’s not unique, not even in the US. What about beyond?
Norma M-D: Well, beyond, we see this type of, really, discourse that suppresses others. We see it all around. I’m just gonna point most directly to Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil who constantly is saying things about – especially, I think, he has a special distain for LGBTQ people. He’s constantly making statements that are both meant to highlight his own heteronormativity and to put down anyone else who might be even a little bit different – that is racially, socially, or in terms of gender or sexual orientation.
This is something we also saw in the presidential campaigns of Vicente Fox in Mexico. To some extent, I mean, there are other leaders that have also fixated on their own masculinities like Vladimir Putin is a famous one with the horses and the swimming naked – not naked – but swimming bare-chested in the – yeah. I mean, all of that stuff [laughs]. It’s like – you know.
I’m really excited to have in the book a piece by Carol Cohn that talks about missiles and masculinity and talks about being inside one of those meetings where nuclear power is being discussed by people who have the power to use it and how it’s really just a game of who has the biggest one and all of these innuendos about nuclear warheads, which you would think is just, wow, really? That’s what it’s about?
Megan Figueroa: Childish. Yeah.
Norma M-D: Yeah!
Megan Figueroa: Well, and this is a very important thing that affects the lives of many. It boils down to this childish game.
Norma M-D: Sorry, it’s a downer.
Megan Figueroa: I mean, the last four years have been a downer, right?
Carrie Gillon: Oh, yeah, every day – slightly worse every day, sometimes more than slightly.
Norma M-D: Yeah. I know that your podcast is about linguistic discrimination. Yesterday, I saw something on the news that I thought I would bring up in your podcast because it’s a really important thing. In The Journal of the American Medical Association, the open forum that they’re having now for research on COVID-19, there was an article – and I think it was coming out of the University of Washington – that looked into language diversity in terms of patients and their ability to get care and their diagnoses.
What they wound up finding was that, if you speak a language other than English, you have much worse outcomes in terms of diagnosed, being treated, length of time, worse death rates. I mean, it’s something as innocuous as just having another language in your repertoire. And we wanna say, of course, it’s connected. I think the worst languages that they found the worst outcomes for were Eritrean and Cambodian and Spanish.
You think about minority communities, communities that are in so-called “essential” jobs – which really are essential, but we don’t treat them like essential – all of these communities are much more exposed to COVID-19 infections. Their infection rates are higher, and they have a harder time accessing care. When you pull on that thread and trace it back to President Trump, you’ll notice that one of his first acts in office was to take down everything that was in Spanish on the White House website. Any kind of linguistic diversity is being – I think it’s under attack. Of course, we can expect that the outcomes for linguistically diverse populations are going to be much worse.
Megan Figueroa: We have an interpretation access issue, too. We’ve talked to a couple people on this show about that. I’m thinking that Trump is able to use the language of patriotism to say that if you speak Spanish, it’s not patriotic, basically. He’s been doing that since when he announced his candidacy, basically, by attacking Mexicans. I think that, I mean, he’s able to just kind of – to talk about a thread – it’s been there the whole time with his attack on Spanish and Spanish-speaking populations. And it’s not letting up. He knows that his base is very – they really get into that kind of rhetoric, I think.
Carrie Gillon: They do. But I think he also likes it, too.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, he likes the rhetoric, you mean? He likes to attack Spanish and Spanish-speaking populations, of course – of course.
Carrie Gillon: I think sometimes we forget that it’s not just about his base, it’s about him. So, speaking of Spanish, you talk a little bit about it in one of the chapters – the chapter that you write – “We Latin Americans know a messianic autocrat when we see one,” but you talk about it more in previous work about Trump’s use of Mock Spanish. What is it? What is “Mock Spanish”? And what does it signal about his attitudes towards Latin Americans?
Norma M-D: “Mock Spanish” is a term that was coined by the late great anthropologist and Arizona professor Jane Hill. Jane Hill’s work in this area has been extremely influential. I wanna say that she came along and put her finger on something so present that it was almost like the phenomenon had been there all along just waiting for her to come by and name it.
Mock Spanish is when somebody uses Spanish in a way that’s not exactly correct and that is meant to portray them in an elevated light. It’s something that’s, at the same time, pejorative of the people that are using it as well as it elevates the speaker. That’s really interesting. I guess, in that way, it can be classed with languages of politeness, in a way, or self-elevation. It’s a variety of language that implies something about the speaker and the hearer.
Now, the really interesting point about this is that it’s often used in the US in a jocular way. People are supposed to be jokey and cool. Hill’s best known example is the “Hasta la vista, Baby” from the, by now really old, Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Terminator where right before he blows off the head of the super evil, I think, android villain, he says, “Hasta la vista, Baby,” and he [imitates gunshot sound], like, blasts the head off the thing.
In this way, you have this Mock Spanish used in an exaggerated way. It’s exaggerated in terms of its pronunciation, so it has a hyper Anglicized pronunciation. It’s exaggerated in terms of its utter lack of agreement and disregard for actual Spanish grammatical roles. It’s also used in ways that will make the speaker seem kind of cool. When Trump uses it to refer to Mexican people – like the whole “bad hombres” thing. Adam Schwartz is another scholar who wrote very beautifully on this. The “hombres” is, at the same time as is it’s supposed to elevate Trump, it actually uses masculinity to put Latinx men in their place, right, “We’re gonna go after these bad /ombɹɛɪz/.”
Megan Figueroa: Sorry, doesn’t he actually pronounce it like /ambɹɛɪz/?
Norma M-D: Well, that was a whole thing on Twitter, right, that Twitter was like, “/ombɹɛɪz/? /ambrɛs/?” Like, meaning “hungers,” or /ombɹɛɪz/, like really bad dyes of the hair. That was going on Twitter for a while. But this “hombres” thing didn’t go away. He kept using different words in Spanish. He sort of let up on that a little bit now, but I think for a while it was really productive. I don’t know if you guys have seen any of his latest ads in Spanish that are just – [groans]. They’re really full of misinformation. The Washington Post has actually branched out to have its own Spanish fact checking in Spanish for Spanish-speakers about these ads.
I wanted to says James Slotta, within the book, has a beautiful article on the incoherence – the coherence of the incoherence – of Donald Trump and points that one of the things that happens is that when people read tweets that he’s made or they hear him talk, it needs a kind of exegesis. We have to have a side-by-side explanation of, “What on Earth is this? What is he referring to? What are these words? Is this real or is it a dog whistle? Who is he calling out? Are we being gaslit?” There’s so many questions that one has after a speech. It’s an example of how you can never quite take what he says just at face value. It always needs investigation. This is extremely tiring for – I mean, I do this for my job, and it’s tiring for me. I can’t imagine the public trying to keep track of it just besides their daily routines.
Carrie Gillon: It’s on purpose, too.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, I was gonna say, I’m thinking about, okay, so if this is supposed to be a democratically elected president, we shouldn’t have to think about whether or not we’re being gaslit, if this is a dog whistle, all of these things don’t – that should not be part of a democratically elected president. That sounds more like a dictator or other types of leaders that we aren’t supposed to have in the US.
Carrie Gillon: You mentioned that his use of Mock Spanish seems to have diminished somewhat in the most recent past. Why do you think that is?
Norma M-D: Well, I’m not exactly sure why that is, but often in linguistics you have the evidence of evidence, right, not the evidence of lack of evidence. So, I can’t say why he’s ramped that down, but one thing that I can say is that he’s been injecting other kinds of linguistic acrobatics into his speeches. I don’t know if you might have heard a recent speech that he gave in Minnesota where he said to people with – he had a big crowd, and he said to them, “So, how are the refugees working out for you?”
Carrie Gillon: Oh my god.
Norma M-D: Right? “How are those refugees? You people in Minnesota have really good genes. It’s all about the genes.”
Carrie Gillon: Oh, right. I did hear this.
Norma M-D: So, in this sense, that particular discourse thread of genetic superiority has not let up. This is something that he’s talked about for a long time. He continues to talk about it. In the latest, he’s trying to limit even foreign students from Africa to two years in the US, right, which is not enough to finish a degree.
Carrie Gillon: Anything.
Norma M-D: Yeah. But be that as it may, this hasn’t actually passed yet. It’s still in comments mode. I don’t know what’s gonna happen with that. But in this vein of like, “You have good genes. You’re in Minnesota. We only want people from countries that – we want people from Norway, not people from Africa from the shithole countries,” in this vein, I think that the implication of refugees said in this really sarcastic way.
As we know from linguistics, sometimes intonation is a very difficult thing to try to capture when you talk about it – certainly, when you recall it. I can imagine that “How are those refugees working out for you,” if you just type it out and put it in a newspaper, it has a very different effect, very different pragmatic effect, than hearing it, “So, how are those REFUGEES working out for you?” because the sarcasm is really audible at the first pass by a native speaker. But it’s definitely plausibly deniable.
Carrie Gillon: He’s really good at the plausible deniability.
Norma M-D: Yeah. Adam Hodges talks about that in his chapter about what it takes to have plausible deniability and what it takes to be just on the edge of having said something that you might have to take back. Then, again, he has methods for taking stuff back, too.
Carrie Gillon: Jennifer Mercieca has a book all about his rhetorical style. He’ll say, “I’m not saying the thing,” so you’re supposed to just accept it if you’re on his side, but think, “Oh, no, he didn’t actually say it,” if you’re not on his side. He’s very slippery. In your chapter, you discuss how Donald Trump’s speeches as president “provide many examples of narratives of masculinity where he promotes himself as the pinnacle of virility, strength, toughness, and whiteness.” Can you explain what you mean there?
Norma M-D: There are moments in his speeches where Donald Trump portrays himself in this strict father mode. This is something that George Lakoff identified a long time ago in his work in language and politics. You have the Democrats being the indulgent, loving mother and the Republicans being the strict father figure. I don’t know if you guys have been getting the unsolicited emails from his campaign, but I don’t delete them because they’re data.
Carrie Gillon: Of course! [Laughter]
Norma M-D: In these emails, they come from him, from Guilfoyle, from Laura Trump, from – all these people are supposed to be the originators – but often they will say something like, “My father hasn’t seen your name,” “My father is asking about you,” right, really triggering anybody who has a father. I think that when you go into the body of the email, it will say, “My father was looking over the rolls of donors, and he found that you were not there,” and in red, “What is happening, Norma?” There’s really some very overt callouts where you have this masculine power figure that many of us have grown up with, right, a father figure who is projecting masculinity and possibly has some degree of control over you when you’re a kid and at your most vulnerable.
By interpolating these father images, I think it gets him a long way. But the other thing that happens is that he will play on the protector image, right, “I am going to protect you,” especially if you are a woman in the suburbs. “We wouldn’t want our beautiful, young, blonde girls to be sliced and diced by these bad hombres.” This is what came up in 2016 – the “slice and dice” by immigrants. The fallacy there is that it rhymes, so it’s true, right?
Fast forward to now and this has become, “Well, if you are a suburban housewife, I’m going to protect you because you don’t want your neighborhood being overrun by BLM protestors or by these bad criminals coming from across the border” – or terrorist organizations or what have you. He’ll conjure up a threat or something that he thinks people will be threatened by. He will make that about gender and place himself as the powerful male figure who’s going to protect the women from this.
I wasn’t sure whether this was gonna keep going – the whole “I’m going to protect the ladies” thing – but it came out quite clearly both in his own speech as well as that of Ivanka Trump. Both of those speeches at the convention – the Republican National Convention – were largely about protecting these vulnerable women who – white women happen to be a voting block that he really needs.
Carrie Gillon: He sure does. What did she say, actually? Because I did not watch any of it. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Norma M-D: Well, fortunately for you, I watched the whole thing. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: I thought you might’ve.
Norma M-D: I actually live-tweeted it.
Megan Figueroa: Did you?
Carrie Gillon: Oh, nice.
Norma M-D: I will be live-tweeting all of the debates as well.
Megan Figueroa: Okay.
Norma M-D: Yeah. So, one thing that she does – and this is actually also done by Melania Trump – is they enable him by doing a boys will be boys kind of routine. They enable his gender stuff. One thing that Melania Trump said at the time of the “Grab ‘em by the pussy” incident was, “Oh, you know, it’s just boys locker room talk.” Melania Trump excused it by saying, “Boys will be boys.” And, well, at the Republican National Convention, Ivanka Trump got up and said, “We all know that not everybody agrees with my father’s speech style, but you will agree that he’s trying to protect you. He wants your best interests.” The whole protecting the women thing is coming back up.
I encourage all the listeners to go out and look for themselves. If you’re curious about something that Trump has said, there’s a wonderful resource called “Fact Base” – factba.se. It’s a compendium of everything he’s every said, tweeted, videoed. It’s searchable. You can, yourself, check up on “Is this something that’s recurrent that I’ve been hearing?” or “What is happening with this?” Of course, this hopefully will be tip that launches a thousand papers on this because the more people that can analyze it – and especially members of the public who might not be students or professional linguists. We all have a linguist in us. I encourage everybody to get out there and look for themselves and look to try to see what kind of discourse you’re being fed.
Carrie Gillon: One of the things you talk about is – a lot of his stories have crying in them. Like, this super masculine man comes up to him, and suddenly they start crying, and they’ve never cried since they’ve been a baby. Why is he so fixated on crying?
Norma M-D: You know, the part about the fixation, that actually needs a therapist. [Carrie laughs] I’m not trained on that. I can talk about the pattern but not the why.
Megan Figueroa: Yes, what is the patten?
Carrie Gillon: Okay. Fair enough.
Norma M-D: I mean, one suspects that there are some father issues there that he has. Based on his own relatives’ accounts of their childhood, there have to be some very strong father issues happening there. But the thing about crying – and he actually mentions this in his autobiography that he never cried as a kid and has many accounts of his brother crying – but for me, I think that the crying part is an integral part of showing off your own masculinity and of trying to say something like, “I am so overwhelming a presence that other people cry” out of a kind of devotion. That’s, I think, the scary part is that it’s not just masculinity; he’s elevating himself to a reach where he’s almost god-like.
Carrie Gillon: Well, remember when he pointed to the sky? He does this a lot where he makes himself out to be some kind of god figure.
Norma M-D: At some point, you have to stop and say, you know, okay, so we know that there’s all of this pattern of him talking about other people crying. You can easily look this up on Factba.se. You can look up the – anytime he says somebody was crying, you can trace it yourself, and I encourage listeners to do that. But the thing that you have to think about is, okay, so we know that this is a discourse pattern that we are being fed because it recurs. He’s skillful at picking out, you know, from – I’m imagining a menu of different things that he’s trying to put across. This is very common. It’s very common for politicians to tell repeated stories and adjust them slightly depending on the audience. This is something that Jim Colby was doing. It’s a common thread for politicians.
One way that we know that this is packaged – and it’s packaged in just so a way for us – is that Ivanka Trump also talked about it in her speech for the Republican National Convention. She talked about, you know, “I watched my father go in with the workers that are working in our buildings” – the “stupendous” workers – “working our in buildings” and Trump Tower, or whatever, “and they have tears running down their faces.” She even does the same gesture. It’s striking how packaged this is for us. Just in case people were thinking like, “You know, maybe he did have more than one encounter where people did cry,” I can’t be there to say whether it happened or not. But I do know that the objective occurrence of this pattern is that it’s being packaged for our consumption to portray him as somebody that moves people to tears in that kind of fervor.
Megan Figueroa: I wonder – I’ve been thinking about this. I know – I mean, whether it’s right or not to use the word “narcissistic” to refer to someone if you’re not sure if they actually are. A lot of folks who study language and who don’t study language have used words like “narcissistic” to describe him. Do you think that they might be picking up on this packaging – this elevation to god-like status, the virility that he uses and makes himself very masculine – do you think that’s what we’re picking up on when we feel that way?
Norma M-D: Probably. I mean, we don’t have a linguistic – I mean, this is not my area, but – mom used to make of me for saying this because anytime she asked me about –
Megan Figueroa “Not my area”? [Laughs]
Norma M-D: “Not my area.” Done. It’s not my area, but I’m still gonna say that, although we don’t have a linguistic litmus test for narcissism, I will say that almost in every appearance that he makes, it’s about self-elevation. Sylvia Sierra and Natasha Shrikant have an article in this book where they talk about the ways in which, when he goes into a meeting, other people are paying homage to him. He’ll go into a meeting, and people feel forced to say things like, “I’m here from the Black Voter’s Caucus. You’re doing such a great job.” So, he’ll go into a meeting and assign turns for everybody to praise him and only then will the meeting start.
Just today in the news there was an article that showed that somebody who received an award – a federally-funded award – and didn’t praise him, criticized him, had the award rescinded – a woman who criticized Trump. You can easily see there that, I don’t know what the criteria for narcissism would be, but I do know that every interaction has to be about elevating Trump. “Hombres” is part of that, too. “Bad hombres” is part of that, right, “I’m elevated with respect to these men. I’m elevating America with respect to these shithole countries.” There’s no one that’s safe from this comparison where he’s gonna come out on top.
Carrie Gillon: That is absolutely true. There’s no one that’s safe. That’s part of the reason I do not understand why everyone is so willing to throw themselves in front of him and let him run all over them. I understand that argument about the framing and how effective it is, and yet, there’s a part of me that’s still like, “How are people falling for this?”
Norma M-D: Yeah. I mean, some commentators have theorized that the divide between Republican and Democrat is so large that it would go against your own identity to go against Trump. If you’re a Republican who holds a particular set of values, the identity threat is so big that you don’t really have a choice. I mean, there will be voters who will never accept AOC or Ilhan Omar or anybody like that. I think that when there are racist comments, and Trump is continuously outed by his staff for them, then you have to just sort of think, “Okay, not everybody working around him can possibly be cut from the same cloth.” So some people are just swallowing their pride and voting for their identity over – you know, and this is actually probably also what happens when religious people, right, who in their private lives wouldn’t sit next to a woman but in their public lives have to defend Trump – calling out Mike Pence here.
Carrie Gillon: Absolutely. I mean, I’m not even talking about the voters. The voters are gonna vote how they vote. I just need more like, yeah, Pence subjugating himself to Trump in this way, or Lindsey Graham, like, crawling – basically, it feels like crawling on the ground for him. And then he just gets trampled on by Trump. I’m like, “How do you not see this is a toxic relationship?” But it is the identity thing. I sort of understand that.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, yeah, I saw my first “Republicans for Biden” sign when I was driving the other day, and it really makes sense to me. You have to change your identity. This is now a new identity that you’re putting on if you’re gonna be a Republican for Biden kind of thing.
Carrie Gillon: It’s a huge realignment of the political sphere for sure.
Megan Figueroa: I wonder, what would you say to someone who says, “Oh, they’re just words. It’s just language. How could it possibly be harmful?”
Norma M-D: One thing I would say would be take a look at what happened to Gabby Giffords. It’s not just language. Language incites action. Language creates our reality. When you have an administration that says, okay, COVID is an issue – the official line about this is that it’s not airborne. Then you have the sort of like, guerilla scientists that are trying to say, “Wait! Wait a minute! It’s airborne!” and they publish an op-ed. That’s the only way that they can get this out. They publish an op-ed. And then somebody at the CDC puts it up for a second like, “Guys, it’s airborne!” Then pretty soon, BAM! It never happened.
When we have our top authorities muzzled, it’s not just that it’s just words. It’s also about the words that can’t be said. It’s about the reality that is being manufactured for us and fed to us. Each one of us has a responsibility not to take it at face value. I think for me that’s the – I had a chance to write a very small piece for an immigrant newspaper in Florida called El Paracaidista. I love the name, right, “The Parachutist.” In this piece I was trying to say – it’s all in Spanish – but in the piece I was trying to say to fellow Spanish-speakers, “Watch out. You’re vote is really important, and people are trying to create reality around you.”
I think that that, for me, is the most important part of it – that language shapes reality. The things that you are allowed to talk about – climate change – that suddenly disappear from the White House, our official organs of communication, have – you can’t talk about critical race theory. You can’t talk about climate change. You can’t talk about oppression. You can’t talk about whiteness. Now, you can’t talk about airborne-ness. All of these things are small ways in which your reality and your future is being gambled on.
Megan Figueroa: Going back to what you said about how Trump – one of the first things he did was remove Spanish from the White House website. I mean, that’s literally removing your access to words and language that could might have important information for you.
Carrie Gillon: Although maybe less so now. [Laughs]
Megan Figueroa: I mean, right. It’ll tell you that it’s not airborne, right. You don’t need that information. But yes. Well, that’s such a clear-cut example of how words can be life or death. I mean, that information, not having that can kill people. It is killing people.
Carrie Gillon: But, I mean, honestly, the information is out there, and people are claiming it’s a lie. So, there’s only so much you can do because they have been so propagandized at for so long.
Norma M-D: I sense some disinformation fatigue. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: That is exactly – [laughs].
Norma M-D: But I think that – [laughs] – I think it’s just important to keep at it, right.
Megan Figueroa: I do have some disinformation fatigue like Carrie does of I’m not used to having – like, I think a lot of people weren’t used to having to pay so much attention to our president and what the president’s saying and all of this. I get that. But we really need to.
Carrie Gillon: For me, it’s also just that these people are so brainwashed. I can’t even have a conversation with them. You know what I mean? It’s just like, okay, I’m gonna keep yelling at my friends. Because for a long time I was yelling at my friends about COVID. “You gotta take it more seriously!” “No, no, no, it really is airborne!” “No, no, no!” I’m happy to yell at them, but people who are fully into the Trump zone, I do not have the skills to talk to them. Other people do, and they should. I support that.
Norma M-D: I am really happy to talk to everybody because I think that, in some ways, the way that a person votes is they’re gonna vote with their own conscience, with their own identity, with their own – with everything that they bring to the table. And it behooves us to respect their concerns. I think for me, I feel very happy when I have the chance to talk to people who speak and think differently.
But I also think – I gave a class talk recently in Kentucky. And the questions were so good! The questions that people had for me were so good. In fact, I had an amazing question from a Latin American kid who said, “Do you think that the reason that Latinos can vote for Trump is because we have had so many messianic autocrats?” And I was like, “Wow! Yeah! Probably we’re more susceptible. Who knows?” But yeah, that’s a great question.
Carrie Gillon: Speaking of that, what is a “messianic autocrat”?
Norma M-D: Okay. So, a messianic autocrat would be somebody who takes power, either elected or coup or whatever, and fashions himself as, basically, the messiah, and the one person who’s gonna stand between you and total chaos. And so I think that it’s pretty clear that the president fits in this description because he’s constantly saying, “I am the one. I am the only one who is gonna stand between you and the Black Lives Matter protests where they’re tearing up your neighborhood and doing all this stuff. I’m the only person who’s gonna stand between you and this immigrant horde, these invaders,” and shoutout here to Otto Santa Ana’s chapter where he and a group of his undergraduate students went all the way to the Supreme Court with an amicus brief talking about how the Trump administration sees immigrants. They analyzed something like 3,000 speeches and 6,000 tweets to look for patterns of how Trump understands migrants as diseased, as terrorists, as invaders, as problematic –
Megan Figueroa: Cockroaches.
Norma M-D: Cockroaches, yeah.
Megan Figueroa: Well, this is such an important edited volume. I’m so glad that we were able to talk to you about this and encourage everyone listening to pick it up. I wonder, do you have any last words for our audience or any last messages or anything you would hope for them to take away from this?
Norma M-D: One thing that I would like the audience to know is that no matter how the election turns out, the power’s in your hands to turn the discourse around. I think that in some ways the damage has been done. This cat has been let out of the bag. But it’s in our power to be kind to each other, to be civil to each other, to let information flow in ways that are not always undermining our experts and the people that we are hoping will actually tell us what’s happening with the environment and with disease and the world.
Megan Figueroa: Thank you for that. I’ve been feeling really hopeless – at different intervals of hopelessness – but it’s good to feel hopeful.
Norma M-D: Yeah. Not at all. And I think it’s so important. I know we are all in disinformation fatigue, especially on the run up to the election. It’s so important to reach out across perceived difference. I think that, yeah, I’m still an idealist in this way. I wanna talk to everybody, and I think if we all just equip ourselves to have these cross-cutting conversations – maybe it’s naïve, but I wanna believe.
Carrie Gillon: Well, even if it is naïve, I do think that some people have to try. I do think that if all of us give up, then nothing happens. We’re gonna split into two at the very least. I just don’t have it in me. [Laughs]
Megan Figueroa: No.
Carrie Gillon: That’s not for me. Anyways, thank you so much!
Megan Figueroa: Thank you!
Norma M-D: Thank you for having me.
Carrie Gillon: We always leave our listeners with one final message.
Megan Figueroa: Don’t be an asshole.
Carrie Gillon: Don’t be an asshole. [Laughter]
Norma M-D: Ah, very fitting.
Carrie Gillon: We would like to thank our newest patrons for this month. Casey. Rikker Dockum and Jasmine Diaz. Thank you!
Carrie Gillon: The Vocal Fries podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon, for Halftone Audio, theme music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @VocalFriesPod. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and our website is vocalfriespod.com.